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Thursday, June 25, 2015

Visit to Mondragon, THE COOP of Coops



Mary Elizabeth and I have been back in the country for three weeks -- long enough to...  attend a best friend's wedding in WNC; visit my herb-tea-farming buddy, Rachel in Virginia; catch sunrise on the Brooklyn Bridge; go berry u-picking with friends and put my overalls to work shoveling at a community garden in the Philly area; participate in a fellowship at the Wake Forest Food and Faith Conference in Asheville, NC; blur through Jacksonville for my wife's high school 10-year reunion; and stop in Tallahassee long enough to learn about the iGrow Southcity Grand Opening happening 2:30pm, Friday, June 26th. Folks, we've been on the move.

But what about Europe? We were there for two months. Other than good, seemingly untainted bread, what stood out?

There was this coop in Spain... A network of coops. THE COOP of coops! I gotta tell you about it.
It's called Mondragon. It's a "federation of worker cooperatives" based in the Basque (NW) region of Spain. It's comprised of 101 worker-owned cooperative businesses that pulled in 12 billion (yes, that's a B) Euros last year. They have 75,000 employees, most of whom are worker owners. Though there are coop model parallels with our local Bread and Roses and New Leaf, and coops in Nicaragua, this is a whole other ballgame. Our visit blew my mind!


A statue of Father Jose 
Maria Arizmendiarrieta, 
Mondragon's founder
With support from a local priest, they started with a worker-owned stove factory. In the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, there wasn't a lot of capital to go around, and a local source of jobs in the Basque region, the stove factory was closing shop. So, five workers put up the initial money and, essentially, crowd-sourced (or "community-sourced") the rest to buy and reopen the factory. From that beginning, they've developed all manner of cooperatives. 

They've got a bike manufacturing coop, a medical supplies coop, a restaurant industry supply coop, auto-manufacturing machines coop. (They make the tools that Detroit uses.) There's a cooperatively owned bank, an insurance coop, a dairy coop, a rabbit meat coop, a hydroponic vegetables coop, a cleaning-service coop, and a construction business coop. Not to mention research coops, and a university coop -- all, mind you, based in a small town in rural Spain.

The coops practice networked-resource sharing. Let's say one of the (fully autonomous) cooperative businesses is in short-term cash-flow trouble. Say they've got a major order coming down the pipe in 4 months, but for the next 3 months, they're going to run 20million euro short of meeting payroll. Rather than close shop, they call up one of the other coops and say, "Could we borrow 20 million euros for the next three months?" No problem. When there are downturns in particular businesses, the worker owners are reallocated to other coops in the network. They haven't had to lay off a worker-owner in 60 years. They trade knowledge and partnerships. They combine leadership development and training efforts. 


Research Coop
One of the coops is Mondragon Services Coop. This is, essentially, "Headquarters." They have 60 worker-owners on staff. Total. 75,000 employees, and they've got 60 worker-owners in headquarters! Wrap your mind around that. Their job is coordinating the networked resource exchanges amongst the coops. Ultimately: they facilitate relationships. Also, they're charged with catalyzing new cooperative enterprises and spreading the cooperative model.  They do what Tallahassee Food Network does at the scale of 12 billion euros annually. All the Mondragon coops pay 10% of pre-tax profits into a fund to capitalize* future coops.  (*Mondragon invests approximately 300k-500k euros for every new job they create; more on money later).

Another innovative aspect of Mondragon's coops are their leadership structures. This is where the parallels with US consumer coops or traditional farmer coops end because the former coop examples are typically single-side coops. (That will make sense in a second). All Mondragon's coops are ultimately lead and controlled by whoever are the major stakeholders (not stockholders) in the business. So, for example, their grocery store coop, Eroski (one of the largest grocery chains in the country) is lead by a team of 8, 4 worker-owners and 4 customers members. These eight are elected by and answer to the Eroski general assembly, comprised of 250 worker-owners and 250 customers*. How do you make a bad business decision when the workers AND customers are both at the table? And did I mention power is divided between them 50/50!? They HAVE to reconcile differences. They HAVE to develop business models and practices that work for everyone.  (*The customer delegates predominantly are drawn/elected from 20-member customer-advisory councils that every Eroski store has).

Or take the university coop as another example. Their decision power is split three ways: 33% worker-owners, 33% end-users (in this case, students), and 33% community collaborators (such as business, government, and community-organization leaders). The institutions that desire skilled work forces are at the table with students and the people teaching and cleaning up after them. Organizational direction, spending priorities, and financial realities are faced in partnership. Imagine how things might shift if FSU and FAMU's boards of directors were so comprised?


Mikel Lazamiz, Mondragon
Services Coop director of
cooperative diffusion
The last thing I'll share for now are a few notes about Mondragon's relationship with money. Our host, the director of "cooperative diffusion" explained to us that in traditional capitalism, money has the power and labor is viewed as a factor in production, i.e., a tool to achieve the purposes of capital. In cooperativism, labor has the power and money is a tool used to achieve labor's purposes. (*It's a major flip from our way of thinking; however, lest someone throw me on a red-bangwagon: cooperativism is not communism. Communism is where the state owns the means of production, controls the economy and employes both labor and capital as tools to accomplish its own goals under the auspices of empowering its people.)

So, if money is to be leveraged as a tool to achieve the dreams of workers, where does their seed money come from?  Themselves. Always. When you start working in a Mondragon coop, the first year you are a "temporary" worker. At the end of that year, assuming you've got good reviews and you're interested in staying on, you've got 5 years to invest a years' salary in the company. It's a 15,000 euro pricetag to become a worker-owner. So, you've got to "cough." But granted, minimum wage in Spain is 9,000 euro, so you're more than 150% ahead annually compared to your typical starting job. Should you chose to bail, the coop keeps a 3,000 euro "entrance fee."  So why join? Because the average rate of return over the past 60 years has been 4-7%, so your ownership investment will grow substantially-- and because membership is ownership, ownership is power. And, in this way, they say, "Everyone is an entrepreneur."

I could go on, but I've long since lost most readers. If you want to learn all kinds of nitty gritty, check out this powerpoint. Also, you should know that Evergreen Cooperatives is a US-based coop network modeled after Mondragon that's expanding rapidly in Cleveland.

~ ~ ~

Just know that I am dreaming dreams.  I dream of agricultural coops, food processing coops, micro-finance coops, healthy corner store coops, food education coops all networked together for the sharing of resources, ideas, & people. And I'm reflecting on the models in N FL that are the seeds, roots, and saplings of our own scaled up future: TFN and its iGrow, Red Hills Small Farms Alliance, Seed Time Harvest, N FL Culinary Incubator, the Slow Food Farm Tour in Jax, New Leaf's expansión to Bradfordville, Frenchtown Heritage Market, the North Florida Cooperative, the NE FL Community Garden Network, Compost Community and all manner of other pieces. 

May your WILDEST dreams grow into being,
Nathan

Oh, and a food garden tip. Summer's upon us, so it might be time for you to transition to the next crops:



Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Why Can I Eat Bread in France, but not the States?


I've got a food riddle for you from Paris, France: Why can I eat bread over here when it makes me sick at home?

First, a little personal background.

Since my senior year of high school, I've not been able to eat much bread at all. For five years, I was severely hypoglycemic, and everything I ate had to have more protein than carbohydrates.  That meant, in effect, that I spent my years of college beer-less and eating lots of salad with meat on top. I ate tons of vegetables, very little fruit, basically no carbohydrates to speak of, meat, nuts, eggs, and cheese. If I accidentally ate, say, cream-spinach with corn-starch in it, I'd spend the next 2-3 days mentally cloudy, depressed, and lacking motivation. It was a health-imposed paleo diet of sorts.

Finally, the year after my college graduation, I learned to manage (and all but eliminate) my hypoglycemia in two ways. First, I took chromium supplements (chromium is an essential micro-nutrient that helps the pancreas regulate its production of insulin) for 8 months. Second, inspired by Michael Pollan's reporting on green vs grain-based food chains, I made sure to eat sufficient sources of omega 3s: sardines, flax, grass-fed meats, and especially loads of green vegetables (sustainably raised on good soils are especially balancing for me).  Though I still do not eat much refined sugar in the form of candies, sweets, or sodas by American standards, at least I can now eat carbohydrate basics like rice and potatoes, fresh fruit, and, well, ice cream from time to time :).

In spite of having learned to dietarily manage my hypoglycemia, your typically, store-bought bread has continued to cause me problems. From constipation and abdominal bloating to hypoglycemic-like low-blood sugar symptoms such as exhaustion and irrational anger, eating bread causes me all kinds of problems.  Dr Li, a Tallahassee acupuncturist says that wheat exacerbates swelling in my low-intestine, which puts pressure on my pancreas and gall bladder. The pancreas is responsible for insulin production, thus the hypoglycemic reaction, and an irritated gall bladder, I hear, is often accompanied by anger. So, you might think that I'm gluten intolerant or otherwise allergic to wheat.

Except: When I eat bread homemade by friends with organic wheat in the States: no problem.  And then, also, in France, I've ate all manner of bread. Well, I should say: baguette, baguette, baguette. Over here too: no problem whatsoever. Why?


Here is my working hypothesis: In light of the fact that France is very restrictive on GMOs and increasingly on Roundup®, I'm guessing that the reason I can eat bread in France but not at home is due to RoundUp® residues in US bread. And, I'm guessing I can eat bread made with organic wheat at home because neither GMOs or Roundup® is permissible in USDA Organic foods.

To paint the full picture, let me delve in a little. This is my health (perhaps all of ours) and a $200 billion rabbit hole, so stick with me. Here's what I've learned:
  1. Although GMOs are sold to the public as a way to "feed the world" by developing more bountiful, nutritious crops, the most numerous* genetic modifications are, in fact, seeds/crops that are "Roundup Ready®." Roundup Ready® means that a field of, say, Roundup Ready® corn can be sprayed with Roundup® and the weeds will die, but the corn won't. The obvious labor-saving benefit has, you might imagine, led to incredible amounts of Roundup® being used on US crops. (* in terms of total number of seeds grown).
  2. Roundup® kills plants - not directly- but by blocking the absorption of key micro-nutrients critical for plants' immune defense. Without a functioning immune system, non Roundup Ready® plants (like weeds) succumb to any-ole soil fungi that comes along. Spraying Roundup® could be considered akin to giving a plant a particularly brutal strand of HIV-Aids. (An interview with Don Huber, a world-renown expert in plant pathology from Purdue University explains it all if you want the details. Or: here if you'd like it in plainer speak.) On a personal note, it seems reasonable that there may likely be a connection between my chromium deficiency and the fact that the active ingredient* of Roundup® is a chelator, meaning it "binds up" (makes unavailable) nutrients like chromium. (*Glyphosate).
  3. For years, the counter argument against worry concerning widespread use of Roundup® on our food went like this: Roundup® only affects plants, not humans. Turns out, this does not appear to be true because Roundup® disrupts key metabolic processes in our gut bacteria rendering them stunted or killed outright, which seriously compromises our overall health -- not to mention the general mineral chelating (nutrient "blocking") property of Roundup®, which was the reason it was patented in the first place. In Dr. Huber's words, "You may have the mineral [in your food], but if it's chelated with glyphosate, it's not going to be available physiologically for you to use, so you're just eating a piece of gravel."
  4. Since the release of Roundup Ready® crops into the US Food System in the early 90s, and, thus, increased Roundup® residues in our food, a host of health problems (including ADHD, Alzheimer's, Celiac/Wheat intolerance, cancer, obesity, high blood pressure, depression, and diabetes) and have risen drastically in almost direct correlation to the increase in use of Roundup®. This article explains the medical links to glyphosate. To lay the case bare, this study shows that "chronically ill humans showed significantly higher glyphosate residues in urine than [a] healthy population."
  5. Back on the topic of wheat: though Monsanto discontinued its Roundup Ready® Wheat development program in 2004, Roundup® is, nevertheless, being used in US Wheat production as this South Dakota Ag Extension resource demonstrates as a "harvest aid."
  6. In a 2013 presentation in Tallahassee, Dr. Don Huber, the world-renown plant pathologist from Purdue University suggested that the real reason Monsanto and the BioTech industry is fighting GMO labeling tooth and nail with millions of dollars is not because of direct labeling-related costs or even an anticipated drop in sales. The reason for the biotech industry's fight is because labeling will allow for interstate health comparison studies. For example, if Florida adopts labeling while Illinois consumers remain in the GMO dark, state-wide health comparisons could be made with millions of replicates to implicate GMOs. Friends of Dr. Huber in the public health arena have estimated the cost of public expenditures on Roundup and GMO-related health problems at $200 billion. That is an average of $4 billion per state, or, in other terms, 4x all the Big Tobacco settlements put together. But for the trial lawyers to pick up the case, they need major health comparison studies. Thus the fight.
In light of all this, I'm guessing that Roundup® residues in conventional US store-bought bread is the reason I can't eat it. The real kicker for this idea came while visiting Switzerland. Within a day or two of being in the country, with no real change in diet (still plenty of good cheese, fresh veggies, fresh bread, and local wine-- just like while in France), my stomach bloated up like I was stuffing myself with white sandwich bread from the States. Come to find out, Switzerland is more GMO and Roundup® friendly than most countries in Europe. When we left Switzerland, I almost immediately began to feel better.

So, here's my Food Gardening tip of the day: If you have weeds, before you reach for Roundup®,
watch my YouTube video about weeding:




Until next time y'all-- happy growing,
Nathan, MIO


Since the time of publishing, I've learned more from farming friends:
  • Roundup® is the original brand, but since the patent ran out over 10 years ago, there are other brands and seeds to match. Glyphosate, the broad spectrum chelator is the problem. The minerals that Glyphosate chelates (or "binds up") are essential for immune function in most or all life forms, not just weeds. 
  • When a farmer or other entity buys GMO seed, s/he must sign a contract that the seeds will not be used for scientific study. Thus, the meta-analysis of state-to-state comparisons is the only way to do studies on the effects of GMOs.
  • The French are writing the same things. Here's an article (in French) entitled, "The Real Reason the Wheat [in the US] is Toxic and It's Not the Gluten."



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